Literary License

The University of Oregon novel-writing class with our instructor Ken Kesey. Photo credit: ©Brian Lanker.

Back in the 1980s, when I was a grad student living in Eugene, Oregon, I participated in a novel-writing course with Ken Kesey, author of several novels, including Sometimes a Great Notion and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. At a reading we’d organized as a class, he read from Demon Box, his collection of essays and short stories.

One of the pieces he read was set on his farm where his son Jed was buried, the Merry Prankster bus Further sat in shocking decay in a marshy coppice, where an unshorn sheep grazed—bringing the phrase “grass maggot” to mind—and where several cattle chewed their cud in a tansy-infested field. He told the story of a butcher’s visit to the farm and how, after the butcher had done his butchery, packed up, and left, the remaining cows gathered, encircling the bloodied tree where the ill-fated cow had been slaughtered.

Really? The story had me sitting straight up in my front-row seat.

Back when I’d still lived at home with my parents in rural Oregon, my bedroom window looked out over our horse pastures and the adjoining pastures that belonged to our neighbor. Several of his cows grazed his pastures along with his horses. One day, a van drove across his pasture to a cluster of trees close to the property line and our house . The driver and our neighbor singled out a cow, roped it, and led it to a tree where they hog-tied the bellowing animal, shot it, strung it up, and bled it out. The mobile butcher proceeded to gut and butcher the cow’s steaming carcass.

The next day, some boys on the school bus bragged about getting ahold of the butchered cow’s head and leaving it in someone’s mailbox. Along our country roads, folks used barrels for receiving large packages. And surprises. The boys all had a good laugh imagining some poor soul fetching the mail and discovering a cow’s head staring blankly at them.

Over the following weeks, those boys somehow got ahold of that cow’s head repeatedly, depositing in various barrels up and down our road over several weeks.

Imagine the state of that head over a length of time; I was sure glad we didn’t have a postal barrel.

As I listened to Kesey tell the tale of the mobile butcher’s visit to his farm, my experience came back to me. And what got me sitting rigid in my chair was his description of how his cows reacted to the death of their herd mate—because one of the things that had struck me as I’d witnessed the butchering of our neighbor’s cow, was precisely how unperturbed his other cows had been. Once their herd mate had been roped, they returned to grazing, looking as dumbly unconcerned by the cruel, cruel world as ever.

And once the butcher had left the field? Did the herd gather in a circle around the bloody tree? Mourn the fallen?

No.

Kesey finished his reading, and I said to him, “About that butcher story and the cows gathering to grieve—”

I didn’t finish my sentence, Kesey’s deep chuckle interrupting me. “Oh, that,” he said, his eyes curing up like an imp’s, “yeah. I’ve gotten a lot of grief over that piece.” He wrapped one of his beefy arms around me and pulled me closer to his barrel chest. I could smell peppermint schnapps on his breath. “Lots of folks call out the bullshit on that one.” More chuckles (the best sounding chuckles I’ve ever known). He fished his flask of schnapps out of his vest pocket and offered it to me. “Literary license, ya know?”

A photo I took of the People Magazine article about the novel-writing class that appeared in 1988.

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